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The Top 12 Bay Area Rock Albums of 2013 

Wednesday, Dec 25 2013
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Deciding where "rock" begins and ends in 2013 — and in a music scene as adventurous as the Bay Area's — is not an easy task. Some of these albums feature banjos, while others have guitars that would sound at home on a metal album. At least one has both. But however you define it, 2013 was another good year for guitar music in this region, whether you like yours poppy, folky, psychedelic, or somewhere in between. After some agony, we've narrowed a long list to our 12 favorite rock full-lengths of the year. Here they are. (And for more on what was a terribly thrilling year in Bay Area metal, see our roundup of the year's best heavy albums on our music blog, All Shook Down.)

1. Mikal Cronin, MCII (Merge)

In a May cover story, we declared Mikal Cronin the best rock songwriter in San Francisco, based on the strength of his first album for the titan indie label Merge. Now that it's December, we have no regrets. Cronin's second LP hasn't quite made him an international star — yet — but it sure stands out among the year's crop of local rock records. MCII is tuneful; it's sincere; it perfectly balances glassy, tender moments along with serrated, angry ones; and it's just really fun to listen to over and over again. The album plays more like a hits collection than it has any right to, considering how early we are into the career of a Laguna Beach native who celebrates his 28th birthday this week — a guy who, until recently, was only known as the bass player for his high school pal Ty Segall. But Cronin is both a road-schooled rock sideman and the holder of a B.A. in music, and all of his skills come out on MCII. His straightforward guitar pop harkens back to the catchy grunge anthems of the early '90s, but comes inflected with violin, saxophone, and piano – often in places you wouldn't expect. Cronin paid principal attention to honest, catchy songwriting here, and it shows: of the 10 cuts on MCII, every one lands somewhere in your head, and stays there. Ian S. Port

2. Thee Oh Sees, Floating Coffin (Castle Face)

The deans of San Francisco's underground rock scene have never been more popular, and they've arguably never been better, either. Naysayers may moan that the spaced-out, sweat-flinging assault of John Dwyer and Co. only really translates live, but that criticism is outdated. For Floating Coffin, Dwyer involved the other band members in the songwriting like he hadn't in a long time, and the result is a vicious, grin-inducing document of fuzz-guitar brutality and seductive, boundless grooves. It sounds evil as hell, but if you've seen any of the band's impossibly sold-out hometown shows this year, you'll know all those dark vibes stir up a surprisingly joyful, kinetic chaos inside the club. (Or even on Muni, if you have the volume high enough.) Thee Oh Sees we all know and love are loud, fast, and punishing. But on Floating Coffin, they're also kind of dancey. We'll take it. ISP

3. Cass McCombs, Big Wheel and Others (Domino)

Behold, a double album that's actually good all the way through. Folk-rock enigma Cass McCombs' latest is unhurried and indulgent, but it's full of memorable songs, from the haunting "Joe Murder" to the yawning country ballad "Sooner Cheat Death Than Fool Love." That sense of calm confidence might even be the album's best feature, the way it shuffles nonchalantly from a bristling rock tune to a spare lament, and pulls you right along with it. McCombs, a Bay Area native, is known for constantly traveling, for not having a home, and here, perhaps for the first time, he's fully captured the energy of that restlessness in his songs. ISP

4. Sonny and the Sunsets, Antenna to the Afterworld (Polyvinyl)

The standard metaphor for the Sunsets' fourth — and best — album is something like '60s rock (the Velvets, of course) beamed out into space and back into the 21st century. There's certainly charm in the new Vangelis synths, or the mentions of cyborgs and aliens, but what makes Antenna great is Sonny's perpetual ability to tell a goofy story that lets you feel the depth of his emotions, and to understand why he smiles at the simple joys of life, like the love of a green-blooded android. Cody Nabours

5. Michael Beach, Golden Theft (Twin Lakes)

Golden Theft is full of poetic narratives, and Michael Beach's arrangements mirror the thematic arcs of his words. This detailed sophomore solo album of understated guitar rock defies comparisons; likening Beach to other artists just seems reductive. "The Exhilarating Rise" heaves, swells and ascends to an ecstatic plateau. He's a windswept balladeer at the bottom of "Mountains + Valleys" who "dissolves into the air" at its brilliant peak. Golden Theft sets listeners on an immersive and profound journey, and it sounds lovely, too. Sam Lefebvre

6. Thao and the Get Down Stay Down, We the Common (Ribbon Music)

Our long-beloved local folkstress finally broke through to national notoriety this year, and the album that took her there deserved all the praise it got. We the Common is socially conscious and brave, but it's also a delight to listen to. Thao Nguyen's voice is smoky and seductive, her lyrics often painfully real, her band funky and innovative. Producer John Congleton layers a broad palette of sounds in places you'd never think to find them, making We the Common as rewarding in headphones as it is in a big-room sing-along. ISP

7. The Mallard, Finding Meaning in Deference (Castle Face)

There are so many bands trying to play gloomy post-punk now that you can almost forget what it sounds like when one really means it. The Mallard broke up before the release of its second album this year, but Finding Meaning in Deference only shows how badly we should miss them. Frontwoman Greer McGettrick comes through like a howling apparition, shrouded in reverb and the distance. Her band pummels away, straight-on, in rapid-fire bursts of snare drum, grenade explosions of guitar, contorted lines of synthesizer reaching to the horizon. The atmosphere is bleak, the vocals are nearly impossible to understand, and the instruments are grating. But in the Mallard's darkest tension, you find incredible release. ISP

8. Tony Molina, Dissed and Dismissed (Melters)Sometimes Tony Molina says his favorite band is The Fastbacks. He also champions the first Hatebreed album. He covers Thin Lizzy live in between original songs that resemble Thin Lizzy songs. Usually, though, he just touts Metallica as the greatest band ever. Dissed and Dismissed sounds like that: unabashed bursts of reverence for gushing guitar pop distilled to the brevity of hardcore with a section devoted exclusively to shredding. Maybe it sounds strange, but this works incredibly well: His indulgence becomes ours, too. SL

9. John Vanderslice, Dagger Beach (self-released)

An elusive, haunting album about forcing yourself back together after your life falls apart, the gorgeously imperfect Dagger Beach does not reveal itself easily. But it's worth becoming accustomed to Vanderslice's warped sonics, chorus-less songs, and emaciated storylines. His lyrics are elliptical but sometimes devastating. His production is richly textured and counterintuitive (and it should be, considering he owns Tiny Telephone studios). Vanderslice never gives you what think you want, but makes you ache for what his songs do give — and maybe that's the greater power. ISP

10. Tartufi, These Factory Days (Southern)

Where many are abbreviated, Tartufi is epic. Where some are single-minded, Tartufi is voracious. The seven tracks on the band's latest album are not easy to categorize — they veer from country-folk to math-rock, from indie pop to near-metal — but they are always powerful, affecting, and surprising. The restlessness and ambition on display here is of a rare quality, so it's no surprise this trio has a global fanbase. ISP

11. Legs, Legs (Loglady)

Nearly every exalted chorus and radiant melody on Legs self-titled debut demonstrates the Oakland quartet's masterful pop sensibility. Yet catchiness still needs room to breathe, so each player also exercises restraint. Leading up to the buoyant chorus on "Two Colours," the guitars drop out where lesser bands might build everything up. Each member wisely defers to the will of the song, with understated gestures fusing into a perfect vessel to advance the band's beautiful guitar-pop. SL

12. Shannon and the Clams, Dreams in the Rat House (Hardly Art)

On their second full-length, Shannon and the Clams come damn close to perfecting their charming brand of girl-group punk, capturing the tightness and teenage abandon that makes their live show so thrilling. These songs come steeped in the retro charms, with plenty of Del Shannon odes and a deliberate sense of mustiness, but it's still vintage pop as only the Bay Area can do it: taut, silly, and blown-out.

About The Author

Ian S. Port

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